An autocrat is a ruler who governs with absolute power. To be sure, neither Trump nor Modi has that kind of influence, but their characters offer some insight into what a democracy in autocratic transition might look like.
By Shivaji Sengupta
It’s probably a truism to say that anything one says about the current Indian prime minister tends to be controversial. This essay will be no exception.
To a majority of Indians who voted overwhelmingly for his party and, indeed, for him, he is a superhero. To a sizable minority, comprising many intellectuals, he is contemptible: “Gujarat ka lalla,” Arundhati Roy caricatures him in her last novel. Many Indian-Americans see him through Trump’s eyes, probably a direct consequence of the “Howdy Modi” reception given to him by his admirers in this country in Texas in 2020.
To me, Narendra Modi comes off as a metaphysical conceit: widely different images, violently yoked together. Modi looks gentlemanly, even cerebral with beard and glasses; sensitive eyes; yet, when he speaks, he sounds rustic, blunt, a straight talker garbed in realpolitik. The quick, drastic political actions he has taken – Kashmir, demonetization, the Citizenship Act – speak of an autotelic man who doesn’t wait for external forces to move him. Everything he does politically is driven from inside. The landslide victory gives him the freedom to do whatever he feels is right.
In 2019, more than 600 million people went to the polls and endorsed him and the BJP. For the first time since Nehru’s Congress Party has a party won such a decisive people’s mandate. It was the largest democratic election ever held anywhere. Thus, to many Americans Modi is, to quote Trump, an “exceptional leader” and a “very tough negotiator.” So he is to many Indian Americans who vote Republican.
Interestingly, Modi seen through the Republican lens highlights many of the characteristics people associate with Trump. The Atlantic writes, “Trump has a well-documented affinity for [Modi], and it’s not hard to see why. The pair share a number of similarities, including a nativist governing philosophy and a strongman appeal. Perhaps their greatest commonality, though, is their adherence to a familiar autocratic playbook, the likes of which have been adopted by other democratically elected leaders around the world.”
An autocrat is a ruler who governs with absolute power. To be sure, neither Trump nor Modi has that kind of influence, but their characters offer some insight into what a democracy in autocratic transition might look like. As the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies, their shared disregard for norms, disdain for dissent (from the media and elsewhere), and dedication to strengthening their own executive power at the expense of state institutions designed to curb it have made them emblematic of the democratic deterioration that has been taking place in some of the eastern European countries and in South America.
It’s the specter of autocracy, however, that concerns me most about Modi, both as an Indian American,, and an expatriate Indian. In democracy, autocratic rule happens gradually. In some countries, this tactic plays out in a sort of piecemeal way. For example, Trump’s bid to extend his presidential authority in the U.S. had steadily increased over time, from his attempts to defy Congress, and the Constitution over his hardline immigration policies, to withholding congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine, to his impeachment. In every such case, Trump’s rationale was largely the same: to invoke presidential privilege or, in autocratic speak, to declare himself above the law.
Modi, despite possessing similar characteristics, is far more intelligent than his previous American counterpart. Also, He has an emphatic mandate than Trump had. But he also has an Amit Shah that Trump never had (Steve Bannon could have fulfilled that role, but his own ego would not allow him to accept Trump’s leadership like Mr. Shah has with Modi’s.) Shah sets the field; Modi plays. Moreover, because of Shah’s extremely successful propaganda, Modi’s autocratic decisions are cleverly disguised as the BJP’s collective decision made for India’s well-being. People believe so. Modi is simply seen as the elder statesman taking India forward.
But look at the laws the Indian Parliament has made. Unilaterally revoking the constitutionally enshrined autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state; establishing new limits on Indian Citizenship laws that discriminate against Muslims; and by imposing crackdowns on protests, most notably in the recent nation-wide protests by farmers.
In short, whereas Donald Trump’s stabs at grabbing autocratic power was personal, even crude, without proper understanding of the Constitution, or without having shrewd, political advisers to guide him, Narendra Modi’s political experience and personal savvy make him look as a far more effective leader than Trump.
A dangerous aspect of modern autocracy is that its success invokes a growing appeal to populist and nationalist sentiment. This has been most pronounced in India through Modi’s efforts to transform the country from a secular democracy into a theocratic, nationalist one that dominates its minorities. Yet, despite the fundamental attack on India’s sacred secularism which, together with being the world’s largest democracy, has earned our former country world-wide respect, a majority of Indians do not seem to value secularism any more.
However, with the change in government here, Mr. Modi will not have a Trump on the sidelines to cheer him on. Already, our vice president, her Indian origin notwithstanding, has expressed sharp criticism of Modi’s human rights record. Many Indians – here and in India – have expressed their displeasure at Kamala Harris, but for an Indian American such as myself, India under Modi is in a precarious place.
If Modi and the BJP continue to dominate Indian politics the way they have been doing, I am afraid India will not be the India I knew.
Shivaji Sengupta is a retired Professor of English at Boricua College, New York City. He has a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and has been a regular contributor to The South Asian Times. He is a member of the Brookhaven Town Democratic Committee.